LOS ANGELES -- A suburban family covets the neighbor's Volkswagen Passat. Instead of simply moving it from the driveway into the garage -- as the out-of-town neighbor asks -- the dad secretly naps in the car's soft leather seats, the inquisitive son tests out the voice-activated navigation, the older son takes a call on the Bluetooth from his pal, and the mother uses the remote starter on her key fob to punctuate a conversation with a superior. A confrontation with the neighbor ensues.
It sounds like the storyboard for a clever 30-second TV commercial.
In fact, it was the central plotline of a half-hour episode of "The Middle," an ABC family sitcom, that ran in January 2012. And it's a prime example of how automotive product-placement deals are adapting to the age of the digital video recorder and mobile TV viewing.
Auto advertising execs say they are increasingly seeking -- and getting -- more from their placement deals in TV shows: not just a few seconds of screen time for a brand or nameplate but a more prominent role in the script that identifies the vehicle by model and showcases distinctive features, such as the Bluetooth, power liftgate or, in the case of the Passat, the remote-start function.
Today, marketing executives speak of product "integrations" rather than "placements" and differentiate between minor integrations, in which a vehicle might appear passively in a shot, and major ones, in which it is written into the dialogue.
Dionne Colvin, national manager of media planning in Toyota Division's marketing department, says Toyota frequently seeks out such deals that yield exposure for a feature or technology.
"I think the networks are realizing that if they work a little more collaboratively with advertisers, they can find a happy middle space where, once we brief them on some of our features, they become more enlightened on how to integrate a certain feature into a story line," Colvin said.
Take, for example, a 2011 episode of TNT's crime drama "Rizzoli and Isles," in which the two title characters, a detective and her colleague, are on a daytime stakeout in Isles' Toyota Prius. When Rizzoli complains about the heat, Isles presses a button next to the steering wheel to turn on the Prius' ventilation fan.
Then comes the pitch: "Solar panels on the roof of my car," Isles tells Rizzoli. "They automatically generate enough electricity to cool us off."
Toyota began working with the producers of "Rizzoli" in the show's infancy, before it was sold to Turner Broadcasting, allowing producers and writers to incorporate Toyota vehicles into the show early on. Colvin says such an arrangement isn't uncommon.
"Instead of dropping off a vehicle -- which is kind of what happened in the old days when somebody needed a car -- we work with them and brief them on the technology," Colvin said.
For producers of TV shows today, deeper integration of product and programming helps cement a financial relationship that helps underwrite their productions, as tighter budgets chase a more segmented audience across the expanding spectrum of TV channels.
For marketers, product integration offers a way to outmaneuver viewers who fast-forward through commercials with their DVRs and reach viewers who watch shows in a limited-commercial format on their tablets, smartphones, laptops or on-demand.
Despite their high visibility, product-integration deals remain one of the most murky areas of marketing. Typically, each deal is negotiated on its own, without any standard template or rate card. Many grow out of existing relationships between producers and ad agencies. Sometimes, automakers approach studios or producers for opportunities to insert their new vehicles into shows. Sometimes, it's the other way around.
Advertisers can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, to get their products featured in a show or film, with top-rated shows commanding the biggest money, according to one TV industry executive with experience in such deals. Other deals involve no cash at all, just a supply of cars. Auto marketers declined to comment on financial issues related to product placement.